Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

“…a natural raconteur…”—Barnaby Martin

In my recent SAMLA presentation about blogs functioning as extended artist statements, I briefly discussed renowned Chinese artist and political activist, Ai Weiwei, who used to blog up to eight hours a day. Leading up to the conference, I wanted to bone up on the details of his baffling detention, so I picked up Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Faber and Faber, Inc., 2013). It reiterates the basics reported by the media, namely that the government had kept a close eye on his activism, brought him in for questioning without revealing charges to the public, and released him 81 days later, citing tax fraud as the motivation. The book goes much deeper, showing that Weiwei is no stranger to controversy and that his interest in democracy and artistic freedom is well founded. For example, it describes the Stars group of which Weiwei was part. After their show of paintings outside the national gallery was declared illegal, Weiwei decided to move to New York in the early eighties, which he described as ‘another world’ (p. 161).

“Come and visit and we can talk about everything,” Weiwei said a few days after his release in July 2011 to Barnaby Martin, the journalist who wrote Hanging Man. Since Weiwei begrudgingly took an oath saying he wouldn’t talk to the media, this offer is really something. A British ex-pat who has been based in China for many years, Martin brings the perspective of an outsider, but one who also knows the culture intimately. The local colour (example: “pancakes filled with chopped lettuce and meat of unknown provenance” served from a bicycle with a hotplate attached—p. 151) may make you want to visit China…that is, if you aren’t worried about being stopped at the airport, being told your travel plans “may damage the state security” (p. 81) and being taken to a shabby hotel and later a military compound in a van, while hooded and struggling to breathe.

The book weaves in and out of the author’s face-time with the artist. It’s not actually until page 70 that Martin gets to his chat with Weiwei after his release. He is skilled at building anticipation, delaying the coverage of their union by giving a detailed account of how he hoped to approach the interview and recounting earlier interviews he had had with the artist. Martin describes Weiwei as “a natural raconteur with a colourful turn of phrase” (p. 78). This quality and his excellent memory are maximized in the interview.

You might say that Weiwei came by his situation honestly: early on in his incarceration, he was told he was being charged with subversion of the State, the same crime as his father, Ai Qing, one of the most famous Chinese poets, whose works were practically required reading for the Chinese Communist Party before he fell out of favour with Mao Zedong. Martin observes that the lives of Weiwei and Qing are “intertwined with the great people and events of modern Chinese history” (p. 12), and that perspective informs the structure of the book. The exposition of Chinese history in Hanging Man happens in fits and spurts, not necessarily in order. Surprisingly, the result is not disorienting; if anything, it maintains the reader’s interest, and prevents the urge to simply skip past a section on background. Historical content from the last century includes the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911; the 4 May movement of 1919; the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; the Chinese civil war (1927-50); the anti-intellectualist purge of 1958 that coincided with the Great Leap Forward; the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution of 1965; the failed assassination attempt of Mao Zedong in 1971; the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989; and the Falung Gong demonstration of 1999. Events such as a the latter (where a silent protest led to individuals being abducted en masse and allegedly murdered, forced into hard labour, or institutionalized) read as harbingers, making Weiwei’s experience less baffling, though no less disturbing.

Martin does an equally good job of distilling complex political situations for the non-specialized reader (like the virtually non-legal status of the Chinese Communist Party) as he does deconstructing the meaning of Weiwei’s conceptual art pieces that encompass photography, sculpture, installation, architecture, and social media. This process subtly parallels Weiwei explaining modern art and democracy to his prison guards, with whom he developed a curious bond. It brings to mind yesterday’s news coverage following Nelson Mandela’s death, in which his prison warden-turned-friend recounted sneaking Mandela’s baby grandaughter past security cameras so he could meet her. Martin is intrigued by this relationship, arguing that Weiwei may be exhibiting Stockholme syndrome or that the guards received orders to treat him well, knowing the whole world was watching (since some of Weiwei’s colleagues have not come out unscathed as he did). Martin also acknowledges the sympathy that an author can develop from spending time with someone who has experienced injustice, and describes the conversations as emotionally exhausting. For the most part, he seems to have retained the burden, producing a measured account of Weiwei’s experience with the police.

Hanging Man is recommended for a general audience as well as academics with an interest in art, criminal justice, or Asian studies.

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